Bush Cabinet Reflects Women’s Growing Clout

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Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria

(WOMENSENEWS)–George W. Bush’s cabinet choices have sparked strong feelings. I, like many Americans, am deeply troubled by the views of several of the nominees, yet genuinely heartened by the demographic diversity represented–a diversity that seems here to stay.

I am especially heartened by the number of women selected. Following a tradition started by Jimmy Carter and expanded by Bill Clinton, President Bush has nominated several women to head large chunks of the federal bureaucracy: Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior, Ann Veneman as Secretary of Agriculture, Linda Chavez as Secretary of Labor (who subsequently withdrew), and now Elaine Chao as Secretary of Labor.

Several other women have been put up for other top-ranking posts: Karen Hughes as White House counselor, Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor, and New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

These women are strong, capable and intelligent leaders. Norton, Colorado’s attorney general from 1991 to 1999, has long been involved in controversial environmental issues. Veneman, a lawyer, is a former deputy secretary of agriculture and the highest-ranking woman to serve that department. Elaine Chao, born in Taiwan, former deputy secretary of transportation under “Bush the Elder” was also head of the Peace Corps.

Rice, also a veteran of the former Bush administration (a key presidential adviser during the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany), served as provost of Stanford University. Hughes, a former television reporter, was executive director of the Republican Party in Texas and communications director for Gov. Bush. And Whitman is the two-term governor of New Jersey and long-time key actor in the Republican Party.

These women have been called tough, no-nonsense, formidable, disciplined, intense and unflappable. Our president clearly is right to ask their help to run our country.

Women Have Been in Cabinet for Decades

What’s new? Women have been in the cabinet for decades. Frances Perkins was the first as secretary of labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Presidents Eisenhower and Ford each had one female cabinet member, Carter three, Reagan two, Bush two, and Clinton four.

Viewed strategically, those numbers are paltry given the political force women have become. With a gender gap of 54 percent to 38 percent, women reelected President Clinton over Dole in 1996. And, according to Peter Hart Research, they were 61 percent of the undecided or “swing” voters in this past election, leaving election pundits twisting in the wind. Thus, with pre-election estimates that four million more women than men would vote, it’s no surprise that both presidential candidates tried hard to appeal to women.

Though women aren’t a monolithic bloc, there are differences between them and men as groups of voters. When the candidates talked about their health and education plans, they tried to appeal to a majority of “women’s sensitivities.” (It’s usually a woman who takes the children to school or a doctor’s office.) Bush and Gore appeared on TV talk shows with a large female audience and their wives joined them on the campaign trail.

This approach seems to have worked for President Bush. Since the gender gap was first noticed in 1980, George W. did a better job of reaching women voters than had any of his Republican predecessors. He greatly reduced Al Gore’s traditional Democratic advantage, in stark contrast to Bill Clinton’s strong lead with women. Bush actively reached out to female voters from the start, with phrases like “compassionate conservatism.”

Election strategists paid particular attention to projecting his engaging personality, leadership ability and lack of aggressiveness; his concerns for education, health care, Social Security, home ownership and bipartisanship. They believed these values spoke to women’s concern for economic security and improving the quality of their families’ lives. And, in addition to hearing the words coming straight from Bush, American women had one of their own, Karen Hughes, to reinforce his message. That Bush chose as a key strategist and spokesperson a woman, rather than one more middle-aged white male, reinforced the idea that he would, in fact, listen to women.

Women Told Pollsters What They Want

And what do women say they want? According to a national poll conducted by the Center for Policy Alternatives and Lifetime Television, they are overwhelmingly concerned with economic issues (83 percent wanted portable retirement benefits and job- independent health care, 88 percent equal pay and benefits, and 71 percent a job with more flexibility and benefits over one with higher wages). In addition, women (and men) continue to believe by large margins that parents having more time with their children is the best way to deal with the decline in moral values.

Times have changed, not only for women in the workforce for our country as a whole, but also in the workforce for the CEO of America. George W. Bush’s nominations outnumber those made by any previous Republican administration. I may not agree with his choice of nominees, but it’s good to know that when I go to argue at the policy table, they will be there. After a debate about military intervention in the Balkans or incentives for the oil industry, we’ll probably go out for margaritas and exchange tips on raising kids and marathon training–laughing at the similarities between the two topics. That camaraderie, as well as our nitty-gritty life experiences, are, after all, some of the strengths women bring to the policy world. We’ve spent plenty of time in the kitchen. It’s good to know there’s room for women in the cabinet.

Swanee Hunt was the U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1993-1997 and is currently the director of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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